The final project for my class on the Psalms this past fall was a research paper on the theme of human and divine remembrance in Psalm 77. The paper was long and unwieldy, not particularly suitable for a blog post. But I did want to extract a few of the key themes from my study of Psalm 77, which constitute the thoughts below. Enjoy!
Claus Westermann writes that the Lord’s saving acts always involve a verbal exchange or dialogue between God and man, including “both the cry of man in distress and the response of praise which the saved make to God.” Nowhere is this dialogue more readily apparent in Scripture than in the Book of Psalms. Lament, supplication, confession, intercession, statements of trust, thanksgiving, and praise each weave their way through the songs of the Psalter, molding the hearts of believers to comprehend and follow the gospel pattern of anticipation and fulfillment. In particular, Psalm 77 is a poignant expression of the tension between the promises of God and man’s seemingly hopeless crises.
At least two primary themes within Psalm 77 should be considered: the effect of the psalmist’s questions and the effect of remembering the Lord’s mighty deeds. When the psalmist asks whether God has “forgotten to be gracious” (v. 9), is he speaking out of despair or out of hope? Interpreters differ on this question. Some take the psalmist’s reflection as despairing, concluding that the present looks even more bleak since God’s promises seem to have ended. Others, however, suggest that the psalmist is more incredulous: Surely God has not forgotten; therefore his mercy will surely return. Some even conclude that Psalm 77 leaves these questions to “hang unanswered” so that they can be carefully considered by each individual reader and singer.
Second, what about the “unseen footprints” referenced in v. 19 among the listing of God’s mighty deeds for his people? Almost certainly the event in view is the crossing of the Red Sea as recounted in Exodus 14, a miraculous occasion to which the people of Israel often turned in times of questioning (cf. Pss. 78, 106, 114). Most simply, the metaphor of unseen footprints may suggest the Israelites’ belief that the Lord went through the sea with them, so that his footprints, like theirs, were covered by the waters when they returned to their normal place. Nevertheless, the comment still seems unexpected here, especially since the evident purpose of the historical recollection has been to call attention to the Lord’s very obvious ways of delivering his people (writhing waters, pouring clouds, audible thunder, visible lightning, and palpable earthquakes). The rhetorical effect of the “unseen footprints” is anticlimactic at best, especially when followed by the pastoral image of the people being led like a flock (v. 20).
Kraus notes based on this phrase that “all the creative miracles of Israel’s God bear the mark of concealment,” again a paradoxical remark given the very revealed character of the natural phenomena just described. But he elaborates: “Being near ‘without footprints’—without the visible proofs of his coming—that is God’s way of dealing with his people.” The Lord’s holiness may be displayed through his mighty acts in view of all the nations, as suggested by vv. 14-18, yet it also takes shape in the mysterious “other-ness” which veils him from human view.
But is it possible that v. 19 delves even deeper in its intent? At least three other interpretations are possible. First, this statement provides a ray of hope that the Lord may indeed be working within his people’s present distress as well, albeit with unseen footprints. His provident protection endures through times of affliction, even when it cannot be perceived as such. Second, the phrase may suggest a sinful forgetfulness on the part of God’s people, one which refuses to take note of his footprints even in miraculous occurrences like the crossing of the Red Sea or the providing of manna. Finally, even for the faithful, the description of the Lord’s deeds as “unseen” acknowledges that the perception of his presence originates in a human vantage point. Although Psalm 77 stops far short of explicitly stating this as such, an undercurrent of hope weaves its way through this section of the psalm: Perhaps the problem lies in the singer’s ability to see rather than in God’s ability to act.
In this sense, the activity of remembering is a corrective exercise which tunes the spiritual eyes to glimpse the Lord’s redemptive work more clearly. Remembering and forgetting thus emerge as dichotomous focal points of Psalm 77 which surprise the reader with their rhetorical implications. While the psalm begins with a complaint that God has forgotten his steadfast love, by its end an unexpected reversal has become apparent: perhaps it is not the Lord but the psalmist that has forgotten. Years of affliction and a national culture of unbelief have dimmed the singer’s spiritual eyesight, leaving him uncertain of the form or presence of Yahweh in his dark situation. But by recounting the mighty deeds of the Lord—a story he has only heard rather than seen—the psalmist is able to restore his confidence that the steadfast love displayed in the exodus from Egypt will continue to be displayed, even if subtly and imperceptibly, into the future. Such a conclusion is possible because God’s faculty of remembering is inextricably bound up in his covenant with Abraham—because he is “not a human being, that he should change his mind” (Numbers 23:19). The psalmist takes comfort: God remembers!
Augustine suggests that the same lack of faith that prevented the Israelites from perceiving God’s footprints through the Red Sea also prevented the disciples from understanding Jesus’ miraculous walking on the water in Matthew 14. At the same time, Christ’s response to Peter’s doubt exhibited above all his immeasurable compassion even toward the forgetful: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matt. 14:31). How comforting it is to imagine Christ speaking the same words to every sincere but doubting believer who, like the psalmist, questions the continuing validity of God’s promises. If the Psalms are any indication, the Lord in fact encourages his people to cry out to him in lament during times of great distress, pleading for him as the great Shepherd to right all of earth’s wrongs.
The apostle Paul wrote that “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). The hope provided by Psalm 77 is that the Lord both knows and lovingly responds to our forgetfulness. What a mercy it is that despite this spiritual amnesia, he gently and lovingly guides us by his Word to places where we can pause and reflect on his steadfast love. In the various situations of human life, forgetting is all too possible. The danger is twofold: forgetting past mercies in light of present affliction, or forgetting past afflictions in light of present mercies. Yet in the dark valleys of life’s path, in the times when we fail to see Christ’s footprints, Psalm 77 remains a gentle and wise guide, teaching us slowly but surely to remember the unfailing love of the Lord, so that when deliverance comes we may be sure to “forget not all his benefits” (Psalm 103:2).
For bibliographic references, see the full paper.